San Francisco Chronicle - 10.22.2017
Women In California Capitol Describe Sexual Harassment [article]
By Melody Gutierrez
October 22, 2017
SACRAMENTO — The number kept growing. Me too, they said.
In a matter of hours, a group of women in California politics passed around a letter declaring they’d had enough.
Enough of the groping. Enough of the sexual comments. Enough of the demeaning behavior by their male counterparts.
The turning point for women at the state Capitol was a scandal unfolding more than 300 miles away. Hollywood women were talking about sexual abuses they say they suffered — in silence — at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, the powerful film industry mogul who could make or break careers.
The powerlessness those women spoke about and the culture of harassment struck a chord with women in and around the Capitol.
The letter, drafted by Adama Iwu, a state government relations executive for Visa, started the campaign to expose harassment at the Capitol. It was signed by more than 140 women on Oct. 13 — lawmakers, lobbyists and legislative staffers. Within days, more than 300 women had signed the letter.
The women said it was time to share their personal stories online and in the media to air their complaints about a pervasive culture of harassment in state politics. The spotlight it created pushed Senate and Assembly leadership to announce last week that they will review how they handle sexual harassment complaints, which are reported to internal rules committees overseen by politicians.
Anthony Reyes, a spokesman for state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, said the senator will announce in the coming days that he is appointing an outside investigator for sexual harassment complaints.
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De León said the recent allegations have shown that the House’s procedures should be reviewed “to ensure we are doing all we can to promote a safe workplace.”
“The Weinstein scandal has shone a necessary light on sexual harassment and abuse of power in the workplace, and I hope it provokes a long-overdue conversation in every industry, including government, about what can be done to prevent misconduct and end the culture of complicity surrounding it,” de León said.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount (Los Angeles County), said, “We will take all complaints brought to us seriously, and we will ensure there is no retaliation of any kind.”
Gov. Jerry Brown’s office also offered support to women who are speaking out.
“Their voices need to be heard,” said Ali Bay, a Brown spokeswoman.
Last week, The Chronicle sought out women who wished to share their experiences. Here are some of their stories:
The lawmaker: Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-San Ramon, said she experienced sexual harassment in politics from the start. She was 22 when she first experienced it, when a man hiring for a legislative position in Washington, D.C., made sexual advances. She said it has escalated beyond harassment since running for office in California.
“I have been groped more times in the last three years as a candidate and lawmaker than in the 15 years before,” said Baker, a lawyer. “It’s still so shocking. You are still processing what happened by the time the person leaves the room.”
Some of the incidents happened while posing for photographs, when a man’s hand “goes where it shouldn’t go.”
“When it has happened to me, I never saw it coming,” she said.
Baker, 46, declined to go into further detail about the circumstances or the men involved. She said the incidents of being inappropriately touched were all in the workplace and involved other elected officials and people in the political realm.
After Baker saw the open letter in media reports, she said she read it and immediately signed on.
“It reflected what I’ve experienced in the workplace,” she said.
The legislative aide: It started with a suggestion. “Let’s take the stairs,” the senior staff member told Nanette Endean.
She walked in front. He was behind her when she felt him grab her buttocks.
“I jumped and turned around and he said ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself,’” Endean recalled of the incident 15 years ago when she was a legislative aide in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office.
She said she punched him, causing the man to fall backward on the stairs as she took off running. In a fit of tears, she told a male colleague what happened and begged him not to tell anyone.
“This was a very senior person in the Legislature,” said Endean, who is now the communications director for the Assembly Republican Caucus. “I worried that if I reported it, I would be charged with assault for hitting him.”
After the incident, she changed her appearance.
“I tried to do everything to portray myself in a manner where no one would think of looking at me in any other way but professional,” Endean said.
She cut her hair short. For years, she wore suits and no makeup. She stopped socializing outside of work. A part of her hardened, she said.
And she kept the story to herself — until other women in the Capitol started sharing their experiences of assault or harassment, including her own mentors.
“I figured after seeing all those names and stories that it’s time to say something,” Endean said.
The lobbyist: Pamela Lopez said she could tell there was a man behind her as she opened the bathroom door. He was too close. Before she could spin around, she said she felt the weight of the man’s body push her into the single-stall bathroom.
She heard the door lock. Lopez turned around and recognized the man as a lawmaker who was attending the same party at a bar in 2016. Lopez said the man immediately began to masturbate.
“I remember thinking don’t create a scene,” said Lopez, a partner at a Sacramento lobbying firm.
She said the man kept telling her to touch his genitals and, if not there, than any other part of his body, as if negotiating with her while he continued to masturbate.
“I said ‘No, I will not touch you,’” Lopez said. “He finished the act and I thought now is my chance to get out of here. I told him ‘We are going out that door.’ He said ‘Don’t tell anyone about this.’”
Lopez kept quiet about the experience until last week, when other women began sharing their stories.
The lawmaker is still an elected official at the Capitol.
Both the Senate and Assembly have asked Lopez to name him but she refuses to. Speaker Rendon called the allegation horrifying and noted that it is also a crime. Rendon said if the lawmaker turns out to be an assemblyman, “we will contract with an outside firm so there can be an independent investigation.”
“If he is found to have committed this assault or any similar harassment, I will ask for his immediate resignation and move for his expulsion if he refuses to resign,” Rendon said.
Lopez said naming him will create one fall guy — similar to Weinstein — and once the lawmaker was ousted the institution will not change.
“If you drive one guy out of town it would create the impression it’s all taken care of,” Lopez said. “I’m not interested in punishing someone. I want men who have abused their power to re-evaluate their behavior and learn to treat women with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
Lopez said it’s hard to recount the experience and relive what it felt like. She said it wasn’t until she started talking about the incident that she began to recall other troubling behavior.
Like 11 years ago when she was 25 and a governor-appointed official refused to meet with her client unless she met the official for lunch wearing strappy sandals, explaining to her at the time in an email that he had a foot fetish.
“He was really important, and I thought I guess I have to appease him,” Lopez said.
Lopez said she wants to make it clear that she and other women stepping forward aren’t asking to be rescued. They want to be respected.
But she does imagine that the lawmakers who recognize the allegations as being about them are worried.
“I imagine some of those bad guys are shaking in their boots,” she said.
The veteran: Paula Treat is a mainstay on annual lists of the state Capitol’s most powerful lobbyists. She’s also on the list of women who signed the open letter decrying the antics of men in politics.
“I haven’t been propositioned (by a lawmaker) in a long time,” Treat said.
But it happened more than once.
Treat said that years ago, a Bay Area Democratic assemblyman, who has since died, told her explicitly that she had to have sex with him if she wanted to see any of the bills she was lobbying pass.
“He told me that if I didn’t sleep with him, all my bills would die,” Treat said. “And all my bills died.”
Treat said she was in an elevator with another Sacramento lawmaker when he reached his hand behind her back and unclasped her bra.
“It was story after story,” Treat said. “There was no one to go to tell. You want to be a team player in a man’s world.”
Treat said she signed on to the open letter to show other women, particularly those early in their careers, that they are not alone. She especially wants young women, who she says did not sign the letter out of fear that it would upset their bosses, to know “we have your back.”
“After 40 years of being my own boss with big clients, I don’t have any great fear,” Treat said. “I think it’s probably why I haven’t been propositioned by a member in a while, because I would tell them to f— off or kick them in the nuts. If you have made your career, you have little to lose except that one vote. If you are younger, you don’t know how to handle the situation.”
Treat said she hopes that both the Assembly and Senate evaluate their current process for handling sexual harassment complaints. The current in-house process for legislative staffers hasn’t been working, she said. And lobbyists, who spend a lot of time in the building working, have little recourse other than filing a police report.
“My guess is every seasoned woman with rare exception has faced some form of sexual harassment in the building,” Treat said.
The former staffer: Nancy Kathleen Finnigan said she felt alone four years ago when she filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Assembly Rules Committee against her boss, then-Assemblyman Steve Fox, D-Palmdale. There was no chorus of “me too.” She said she simply had had enough.
Finnigan worked in the state Capitol for 18 years, moving between Democratic and Republican offices and the Department of Finance. She said issues surfaced soon after she went to work for Fox as his legislative director.
According to Finnigan and to a lawsuit she later filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, Fox exposed himself to her in February 2013 when she went to his apartment with an Assembly sergeant to get him when he didn’t show up for a mandatory Assembly session. It was one of many complaints she had about working for Fox, though the only one of a sexual nature.
Finnigan said that when she arrived at his apartment, he was walking around with his pants down and no underwear.
Less than a month after she filed her complaint with the Assembly in 2013, she said, she was fired from her job.
She filed a lawsuit against Fox and the Assembly in 2014, alleging, among other things, retaliation over her many complaints against Fox. She claimed that the Assembly never disciplined Fox.
Earlier this year, the Assembly and Fox settled out of court with Finnigan for $100,000. According to a copy of the settlement, neither the Assembly nor Fox admitted wrongdoing.
Fox could not be reached for comment late Friday.
Finnigan said she sometimes regrets filing the complaint because it cost her a career. She said she lost friendships and felt she had to walk away from some of the people who did support her to shield them from retaliation.
“I didn’t want to drag them into this,” she said tearfully.
Finnigan said she hopes for change. Maybe there will be whistle-blower protections for legislative staff, who are at-will employees and don’t receive many of the employment protections that the Legislature has mandated for all other public sector workers.
“The system is not broken,” Finnigan said. “It’s working like it was designed to work. It was designed to protect the institution and the perpetrator.”
Melody Gutierrez is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @MelodyGutierrez